Feb 7, 2020 update to the Volkswagen Fox project car

Project Fox: Why Is There a Giant Wing Bolted to the Front Bumper?

After buying a used race car, painting it, installing safety gear, swapping the engine and checking our work at a test day, we found ourselves unloading our $500 Volkswagen Fox from the trailer, just one day away from racing The 24 Hours of Lemons 'Shine Country Classic at Barber Motorsports Park

 

The Theme

One problem: We weren’t unloading the car at the track. Instead, we were at Nine Lives Racing’s manufacturing shop on a quest to complete our final pre-race prep.

Past experience has shown us that the Lemons “BS Inspectors,” who vet all cars for budget worthiness, penalize cars without silly themes, and look the other way when judging cars that have themes. Just ask our series of low-buck Miatas, which constantly racked up penalty laps despite being at least close to the $500 budget limit. We knew we had targets on our back (Lemons has a rule about harassing automotive journalists), and our Fox was too shiny and too fast to escape the judges’ gavel without a good theme to back it up. 

So we went to work. See, there’s a reason we were at the Nine Lives shop specifically: wings, and lots of them. Every racer knows that wings are cool, and after our test day we knew the Fox could use some more front grip. We figured that bolting a giant wing to the car’s front bumper would kill two birds with one stone: Make the car faster and make a silly theme. We scrounged up a blemished wing and some mis-milled C5 Corvette mounts from a dark corner of the shop, then bolted everything to the front bumper and stood back: We’d put a giant wing on the Fox, one that would make 200 pounds of downforce while hopefully making the judges laugh instead of assign penalty laps. 

We’d installed nearly $1000 of aerodynamics on the front of the car, and it looked good. Too good, in our opinion, and there was still the risk somebody would take it seriously. We needed to add downforce to the rear, too, but not much: It’s important to match a car’s downforce distribution to its weight distribution, otherwise the handling balance will change as speed (and downforce) changes, and we didn’t want to be fighting an ever-changing car on track.

Our Fox didn’t need more rear grip, and it already carried 63.4% of its weight on the front axle with a full tank of fuel. We faced the challenge of needing to put a wing on the rear, needing it to not make much downforce (or drag) and needing to look as silly as possible. 

So we returned to the blemished wings pile, finding a few small pieces and some sweet bi-plane endplates. Suddenly a plan came together: Nine Lives Racing owner Johnny Cichowski would weld a few smaller wing scraps into two three-foot-wide elements, which we’d then mount one on top of the other on the car’s decklid.

The goal was simple: Look like we’d added a bunch of silly aerodynamic elements to the rear of the car without actually adding much downforce or drag. By mounting the bi-plane wing low and forward on our boxy Fox, we guaranteed that it wouldn’t get any clean air, and wouldn’t make much of the rear downforce and drag we were trying to avoid. 

Once we’d bolted everything together, we stood back and examined our creation: Stupid is the only word to describe it. Our Fox looked like a joke, which is exactly what we were hoping for. Mischief managed, we loaded the car back up and drove to Barber Motorsports Park for Lemons Tech and BS Inspection.

While we were in the Nine Lives Racing shop, we also threw on a fresh set of front brake pads and rotors. We didn’t get fancy with the rotors, choosing generic blanks from our local parts store, but we did spring for good pads: We chose Hawk Performance Blue 9012 pads, which are billed as an entry-level endurance compound. We knew our Fox wouldn’t be too hard on its brakes since it’s so light, but we also didn’t trust parts-store brake pads to hold up to the heat of endurance racing. These Hawk pads should be perfect for the Fox. 

 

The Team

At the track, we met up with the rest of our team. We’d put together an ambitious roster, at least for a fresh car with unknown pitfalls, and our driver lineup was as follows:

The Team Leader: Tom Suddard of Grassroots Motorsports, an experienced wheel-to-wheel racer who’d never driven the Fox.

The Chassis Expert: Johnny Cichowski of Nine Lives Racing, an experienced racer whose only front-wheel-drive experience involved crashing.

The Hot Rodder: Blane Burnett of Holley Performance Products, a driving school and track day enthusiast who’d never raced before.

The Mechanical Genius: Jesse Spiker of VMP Performance, the only person in the lineup who’d driven our Fox more than 10 feet, who had also never raced before.

The VW Fanboi: Miles Wilson, an old friend who put many hours into prepping our Fox for the track, but had only done one wheel-to-wheel race before. Fun fact: Miles was our rusty Jetta’s previous owner.

The Photographer: Though he wasn’t driving, Chris Tropea of Grassroots Motorsports would be there every step of the way to document our exploits. 

Eclectic bunch, huh? One thing we’ve learned about endurance racing over the years is that it truly takes a village to make a cheap car last two full days on track, and we knew our team’s diverse skills would have value. And there’s another reason we chose this group: We enjoy each other’s company, and having fun is the entire point of amateur racing at the end of the day. 

Team in place, we unloaded the car, set up our paddock area, slapped some vinyl on the car, and drove to Lemons tech and BS Inspection.

 

The Inspection

In a drastic departure from our traditional luck at Lemons, our plan worked! As we drove the car towards the tech line, we noticed something we’d never seen during our years of Lemons racing a beat-up Miata: People liked the Fox. Questions were asked. Laughs were heard. Cameras were out. With some silly wings mounted in silly places, it seemed like we’d finally built a Lemon that the paddock liked instead of merely tolerated.

And the judges seemed to share their sentiment. We weren’t worried about passing tech–thank you, Stable Energies Motorsports–but we were worried about being placed in a fast class or receiving penalty laps from BS inspection. Surprisingly, after pleading our case and promising that we’d do terribly, we were placed in the slowest class, C, with zero penalty laps. Success! It might have helped that we told the judges our wings made so much downforce that if we happened to roll the car, it would fly into the air like a plane. (See artist's rendering.)

 

The Dream

With a coveted class C designation, our plan was coming together. We knew it would be impossible to win our first race with the Fox, so our goal was to have fun and collect data. On day one, we’d aim to have every driver drive for a 1.5-hour stint, tracking fuel use and tire wear and making sure everybody had a chance to drive the car. Then, on the race’s second day, we’d turn the knobs up to 11 and aim for stints that would use a full tank of gas each, searching for any pitfalls involved in pushing the car harder and harder. Hopefully we’d finish the weekend with enough data to put together a winning strategy for our next race, and a truck full of happy drivers who wanted to come back.

 

The Reality

Lemons races all start with the cars circulating under double-yellow conditions, and Tom took the rainy first driving stint in order to keep our novice drivers from encountering the rookie drivers, stupid moves, and stalled cars that form the backbone of every Lemons race’s first hour of driving. Then the caution flags dropped, the radio crackled “Green green green!” And just like that, we were racing a Fox on track. 

And it was fast! Well, not that fast–remember, we only have 80 horsepower–but the Fox was like nothing else on track in wet conditions. We were passing cars on the inside, on the outside, on the curbing, on the grass… our wings worked, and the Fox stuck like glue. Well, until it didn’t. Twenty minutes into that first session, the transmission popped out of forth gear as we were feathering the throttle through Barber’s high-speed Turns 9 and 10 on the back straight. With no throttle to correct the car’s attitude, we spun and earned our first (and only) visit to the penalty box for a stop-and-go penalty. 

After starting the race 24th overall and working our way up to 17th position, we were now 82nd. Yeah, getting a 10-minute penalty 20 minutes into a race is pretty darn similar to not competing in a full third of the race so far!

As it turns out, those first 20 minutes would be the only ones where our Fox stayed in first gear, and every subsequent lap was completed with one hand on the wheel and one holding the shifter in forth. Things were noisy, too, with the Fox’s first three gears incredibly quiet and fourth screaming “KILL ME!!!!” at the top of its lungs during the entire race. It’s fine. Everything’s fine, or at least that’s what we told ourselves.

Then, at 47 minutes into the race, the next disaster struck: Tom’s voice came over the radio “Down on power. Fuel issue. Pitting two laps. Pitting two laps!”

Our team scrambled to prep for a fuel issue, laying tools and spares out in our paddock spot (Lemons prohibits any work to be completed in the hot pits). This is one example of how radios make race cars faster–without communication, the team wouldn’t have been able to ready itself to fix a fuel issue until the car was already off track.  

Then the Fox arrived, and the problem was immediately obvious: It sounded like a siren was wailing by the car’s right rear tire, exactly where the external fuel pump is located. We’d caught the noisy, failing pump before it left us stranded on track. 

Fortunately, we were prepared, and had brought the external fuel pump from our Jetta donor car with us. Jesse spent some quality time laying in a puddle of fuel under the car, then returned and proclaimed it fixed. 

Nope. We’d swapped the fuel pump successfully, but the Jetta unit wasn’t running at all. All it did was click, and a quick check of the wiring confirmed our fears: Somehow, our Jetta pump had locked up in the weeks between being driven into our shop and being retrieved from our spares box. 

After nearly an hour in the paddock, we’d made no progress towards putting the car back on track, and needed parts. So we went to the parts store, eventually finding a suitable replacement pump. As it turns out, the fuel pump from a 1988 Ford F-250 with a fuel-injected 302 V8 is designed to be installed externally and makes 45 psi–perfect for our Fox. 

Parts retrieved, Jesse put the truck pump in the Fox, and this time the fix worked: We were back in action. As some of the team tidied up under the car and prepared to lower it to the ground, we belted Johnny into the driver’s seat, checked oil, and cleaned the windshield. After nearly two hours in the paddock, we sent driver number two out for his stint in the Fox. 

 

The Monotony

93rd. That’s where our team ranked on the leaderboard, but we weren’t too torn up about our luck: After all, our goals were to have fun and collect data, and we knew from the start that we could never win our first outing. All we could hope for now was that the car would keep doing laps, and our drivers would keep getting experience. 

Somehow, our luck held out. The rain cleared during our time at the parts store, creating a dry track and perfect conditions: Johnny posted our fastest lap of the day, knocking out a 2:02.991 in the traffic-heavy field. That’s a mediocre best lap compared to the rest of class C, but our car was remarkably consistent, and with a bit more power it would be legitimately fast. 

Johnny was followed by Jesse, then Blane, then Miles, all of who ran laps within a second or two of each other without any incidents. We all agreed that we’d built a car that could be competitive. Was it any fun to drive? We’ll let our drivers’ quotes tell that story: 

  • Tom: “I’ve always dreamed of racing a car with real, impactful aerodynamic elements. I guess this Fox will do.” 
  • Johnny: “My expectations started low and stayed there the entire time.”
  • Jesse: “Hey look there’s a turn… yeet!”
  • Blane: “I was looking forward to driving the Fox. While the straight-line speed was dismal on account of the double digit horsepower, I was quite impressed with how adept the car was at passing faster cars in the corners due to the available traction out front.”
  • Miles: “Like riding a zero-turn lawnmower at 80mph, but with one hand tied behind my back.”

It’s hard to overstate how much fun racing a terrible car can be, and spirits were high as Miles finished up his last few minutes on track. We were passing cars, having fun, and watching onlookers point and laugh whenever our wings passed cars on the outside of a corner. 

Then the radio brought more bad news from Miles: “The car locked up and skidded to a stop. The tow truck can’t drag me. Car is coming in on a rollback.”

It had finally happened: We were sure that after eight hours of screaming, forth gear had finally thrown in the towel. We expected to find a gear-shaped hole in the transmission as the car was dropped off the rollback. 

Then the front wheel fell off. 

Yeah, seriously–what initially looked like a broken tie-rod turned out to be an exploded left-front wheel bearing, with the wheel and hub contained only by the brake caliper bracket. Oops. We couldn’t quite figure out what had failed–had the bearing gotten that bad, had the axle nut backed off, or was there something else at play?

But we knew what needed to be fixed: We needed to find a Fox wheel bearing and press it in, and we didn’t have the bearing or a press. Why not? The former wasn’t available at any of our local parts stores, and the latter is the biggest, bulkiest tool in the shop, and not easily carried around to racetracks. 

But we wanted to get back on track, so we dispatched two teams. One to a parts store a hour away in Birmingham that somehow had a Fox wheel bearing, and one to Harbor Freight to piece together enough coupons to buy a hydraulic press. Fortunately we had all the time in the world, since the 24 Hours of Lemons doesn’t run at night. 

A few hours later we returned to the track, assembled the press, and went to work. All was well until the final step–removing the old bearing from the Fox’s hub, then pressing the hub into the freshly installed bearing/upright–when the true problem emerged. The hub, which should be a press-fit into the bearing, had been machined by abuse to a diameter that literally fell right into the bearing. This didn’t seem like a new problem, either, as the pits and scratches looked much more than a few hours old. Our theory is that this, coupled with the forces of racing, caused the axle retaining nut to back off, which in turn allowed the bearing to separate and the catastrophic failure to occur.

We didn’t have a spare hub and none were available locally, so we finished assembly to roll the car on the trailer, cracked open the beer cooler, and called it a night. We were done racing for the weekend.

 

The Takeaway

It would be easy to say our weekend ended in failure, and we just did, but it was a success all around in our books. We found the car’s weak points. We collected enough data to plan our race strategy. Every driver spent at least an hour in the car. Nobody got hurt, and the car drove onto the trailer under its own power at the end of the day. 

What’s next for the Fox? Surprisingly, not much. A new front wheel hub should be here in a few days, and that should only take a few hours to change. We need to replenish and reorganize our spares, too, to make sure we don’t have a repeat of the missing hub or the bad fuel pump.

What about the brakes? They had great bite and exhibited absolutely zero fade–thank you, Hawk Blue pads. We do have room for improvement, though, since the front brakes locked up way before the rears. We’re planning to install a brake bias knob before our next race in order to better utilize our rear brakes and hopefully shorten our stopping distances. 

In fact, the only real issue we have is with our Fox’s transmission. We’ll look into replacing or rebuilding it, as its costing us tons of time on track. One thing is sure: We’ll be back, and next time we’re aiming to finish the race in first place. 

What about the tires?

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Bridgestone’s RE-71R for 200tw endurance racing, but we wanted to try something new, and something more befitting of a class C Lemons effort.

So we called  Tire Streets and ordered a set of their 200-treadwear Accelera 651 Sport in 195/50 R15. At $96/each with free shipping, these tires are an awesome deal, but are they fast? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

After five drivers and a day of racing, the feedback was in. These certainly aren’t the fastest 200-treadwear tires in the world, and we found both absolute grip and steering feel lacking compared to any other modern 200-treadwear tire. One driver noted that they had “The sudden breakaway of a slick with the traction of a street tire!” But there’s a silver lining: They wear like iron. They’re completely indestructible, and hours and hours of abuse didn’t even leave a mark on the tires. At this rate, we’re pretty sure we could run an entire season of Lemons races on a single set, meaning that while these aren’t the fastest option, they’re a really, really good choice for low-dollar endurance racing. We’ll be returning to the FIRM soon to collect more data on these tires’ performance vs. the RE-71R.

 

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Comments
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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/5/20 9:21 a.m.

For added effect, it helps to play The A-Team theme song when you read "The Team" section above.

mblommel
mblommel Dork
2/5/20 9:25 a.m.

Reminds me of this:

 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/5/20 9:27 a.m.

In reply to mblommel :

Pretty much the same exact thing except in white. 

ross2004
ross2004 Reader
2/5/20 10:33 a.m.
slowbird
slowbird Dork
2/5/20 10:45 a.m.

I predict that you'll have to amp up the silliness for the next race. Which means: somehow give the car an F1 theme.

 

Oh, but beware that this doesn't happen:

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/5/20 10:46 a.m.

Yup. Don't want to oilcan. 

ChrisTropea
ChrisTropea Associate Editor
2/5/20 12:54 p.m.

Every time I looked at the rear wing I kept thinking about the scene in "Cars" with all the tuner cars. But on track the Fox looked awesome! I would have to double take everyone once in a while because it was so weird seeing that big wing on the front of a car.  

Honsch
Honsch New Reader
2/5/20 1:00 p.m.

Is the "I gotta P" license plate in reference to the 2P transmission?  IF so, good luck finding another one.

We've switched to a 012 from a B5 Passat/A4 as we couldn't find any 2P transmissions in the Pacific Northwest.  It only required making custom axles, a lot of hammering on the trans tunnel, a custom trans mount made from a piece of angle iron and complete custom shifter and linkage.

Easy!

 

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
2/5/20 1:50 p.m.
mblommel said:

Reminds me of this:

 

Except those wings objectivly made the Lambo worse and slower adding massive drag for no apreciable downforce.  SO you can say you out engineered Lamborghini!

Adrian_Thompson
Adrian_Thompson MegaDork
2/5/20 1:52 p.m.

Serious Q.  Why did you, and it seems most other LeMons cars do the same, remove the side and rear windows?  Is it in the rules?  If not surely (don't call me shirley) you'd be better off with lower drag by keeping them?  If it's weight replace with cheap plastic or alloy sheet?

Robbie
Robbie MegaDork
2/5/20 2:03 p.m.

I'm not an expert on recent lemons rules, but they want as little possible glass on track.

They didn't like it when we removed our windshield however.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
2/5/20 3:02 p.m.

Yeah, the rulebook says we have to run without windows. We didn't run the Fox through NLR's giant CFD number crunching server, but we're pretty sure it was screaming in agony just sharing floor space with this horrible car. 

buzzboy
buzzboy HalfDork
2/5/20 3:25 p.m.
Adrian_Thompson said:

Serious Q.  Why did you, and it seems most other LeMons cars do the same, remove the side and rear windows?  Is it in the rules?  If not surely (don't call me shirley) you'd be better off with lower drag by keeping them?  If it's weight replace with cheap plastic or alloy sheet?

Rules say driver and passenger windows must be down or removed. We actually got flagged once for forgetting to roll down our passenger window. Rear quarters and rear windows are up to you as long as they're made of safety glass. My Lemon still has all it's glass(and electric windows!) so it remains (somewhat) watertight.

300zxfreak
300zxfreak New Reader
2/5/20 7:27 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Pretty much the same thing except in white, chunky, tall, awkward, slow, but awe inspiring.

pheller
pheller UltimaDork
2/5/20 11:09 p.m.

A Fox Wagon was my first car. Two wrecks, a teenage driver who thought he was Colin McCrae and finally a blown trans ended that car's stint. Ironically enough I too also replaced an axle on that car.

 

So yea, the transmissions are kinda known to be the weak link.

 

Next to the Quantum, the Fox is up there with one of the weirdest vehicles VW tried to sell in the states. 

 

I keep hoping for someone to recreate the Hadjiminas/Maxwell Fox Wagon Rally Car

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
2/5/20 11:55 p.m.

I wonder if you added deflectors at the front of the window openings if you could cut down the drag, similar to the front bumper is wider than the front wheel opening to push air away from the spinning wheel. Look at the Sunoco sticker down where the splitter meets the wheel opening. 

 

Also, look at the rear of the window on Petty's Charger. See the silver area? That metal goes way into the cabin to get the dirty air out. 

Maybe since so much air is going through the cabin, can you smooth out its path, by covering the B and C pillars? Make a sheet metal cover to raise up the back seat floor to meet the bottoms of the windows?

mblommel
mblommel Dork
2/6/20 7:02 a.m.
Adrian_Thompson said:
mblommel said:

Reminds me of this:

 

Except those wings objectivly made the Lambo worse and slower adding massive drag for no apreciable downforce.  SO you can say you out engineered Lamborghini!

Right. Wasn't the front wing a silly response to meet U.S. bumper height regulations? 

I'm not sure how difficult it would be to out engineer Lamborghini's aerodynamics from the 70's.... Even the original LP400 Countach without all the adornments was a mess aerodynamically, but it sure did look cool!

I love the front wing on the Fox, and isn't cocaine white an appropriate super car color?

jstein77
jstein77 UberDork
2/6/20 8:36 a.m.

Might there be any way to fit a more modern trans, like from a Golf?

Mr_Asa
Mr_Asa Reader
2/6/20 8:36 a.m.

Nice read, thanks 

In reply to Appleseed :

Could even play into the wings on wings on wings theme with some work 

newrider3
newrider3 New Reader
2/6/20 9:06 a.m.
Tom Suddard said:

Yeah, the rulebook says we have to run without windows.

That's not true at all, we run full glass in both of our Lemons cars. Just need to have door panels on the front doors with the driver and passenger front windows rolled down. We get enough wind and exhaust fumes in the cabin as is with a wagon and a hatchback, I can only imagine how hateful it would be with no side and back glass.

 

Out of curiosity, how did the tech inspector at this race feel about the wing structure in front of the bumper? It seems like it's basically a push bar and seems to contradict the rules about OEM bumpers and crash structures. 

84FSP
84FSP SuperDork
2/6/20 9:10 a.m.

Spare hubs and spare rotors are key to these beasties.  Modern tires and suspension put enough strain on the flimsy hub design that they like to fail.  They even pop the out braking surface off the rotors in autox loads.

 

Love this thing, I bet the competition was loving getting passed by 80 raging hp.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
2/6/20 10:09 a.m.

In reply to newrider3 :

I should have been more clear: The rules say the front side windows must be removed or rolled down with full door panels covering them. Our car came to us missing all the windows. 

Honsch
Honsch New Reader
2/6/20 2:03 p.m.

In reply to pheller :

It's the wrong color, but are we getting close? smiley

Stefan
Stefan MegaDork
2/6/20 2:56 p.m.
jstein77 said:

Might there be any way to fit a more modern trans, like from a Golf?

I think from an older Audi might work better, but then the bellhousing might be different.  there weren't many longitudinal based transaxles with that engine bellhousing pattern, most had the Audi engine setup (and as much fun a 5-cylinder engine would be, it would make many of their problems worse).

Honsch
Honsch New Reader
2/6/20 3:17 p.m.
Stefan said:
jstein77 said:

Might there be any way to fit a more modern trans, like from a Golf?

I think from an older Audi might work better, but then the bellhousing might be different.  there weren't many longitudinal based transaxles with that engine bellhousing pattern, most had the Audi engine setup (and as much fun a 5-cylinder engine would be, it would make many of their problems worse).

You can swap in a 012 from a FWD B5 Passat/A4, it bolts up to pretty much all the VW/Audi motors.

We swapped one into our Fox wagon (as pictured above).  It's not a trivial swap but it can be done.
You need custom axles (Passat inner CV, Fox outer CV) , a custom shifter linkage, a very simple custom trans mount, a Passat clutch/flywheel, a hydraulic clutch pedal setup, and a lot of hammerring on the trans tunnel to make it fit.

Also, there's no room for a five cylinder motor, the engine bay is just too short.

cordycord
cordycord New Reader
2/7/20 9:17 a.m.

We've got those Konig "Dial In" wheels on our crap-can!  I recommend NOT using them.  An over exuberant Ford Focus driver tried to out-brake our Miata at  Buttonwillow and our wheel spokes--which are proud of the tires--hit their spokes.  Bad things ensued.  In addition to the broken wheel spokes and new blue striping on the side of our car, the hit broke our battery loose, which arced on the bare trunk and started a fire.  Again, not good.

Konig Dial In = not recommended for wheel to wheel racing.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
2/7/20 9:49 a.m.

We've raced on these wheels for years and never had a problem, but yes, I could see hitting cars or being hit by cars posing a problem for most wheels in some form or another. 

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela HalfDork
2/7/20 10:31 a.m.

I can't see that Jetta without thinking of Jesse riding an 8V a la Ginuwine. 

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